Anapest: Characteristics, Overview

Instructor: Debbie Notari
In this lesson, we will explore the meaning and uses of the metrical foot, the anapest. This poetic device has been in place since the time of the Spartans.

Characteristics of an Anapest

The anapest is a foot, or beat in a line of poetry that consists of two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable. Because it has three syllables, we call it triple meter. The word 'foot' shows us how rhythm is measured in a poetic line. Each line has a specific amount of 'feet.'

The anapest contains three syllables, and those three syllables equal one foot or beat in a line of poetry.

History

In early Greek and Latin plays, the anapest was used especially when a chorus would exit or enter. Also, it seems the Spartan soldiers would sing in anapestic verse when they would march. Plutarch wrote: 'Moreover the rhythmic movement of their marching songs was such as to excite courage and boldness, and contempt for death; and these they used both in dancing, and also to the accompaniment of the flute when advancing upon the enemy.'

However, in English verse the anapest was primarily used less seriously until the 19th century when poets like Browning adapted it, as in his poem 'The Destruction of Sennacherib.'

Examples

One word that illustrates the use of anapest is the word 'intercede.' We would say this word like: in-ter-CEDE, placing the stress on the last syllable. As you can see, 'intercede' contains two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable, so it is an anapest.

It is important to note that the anapest might cross over from one word to another in order to form the three syllables, such as in this stanza from Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem, 'Break, Break, Break:'

'O, well for the fisherman's boy,

That he shouts with his sister at play!

O, well for the sailor lad,

That he sings in his boat on the bay!'

Notice that in the last line there are three anapests--'That he SINGS in his BOAT on the BAY!'

Twas the Night Before Christmas

The famous poem 'Twas the Night Before Christmas,' by Clement Clarke Moore is a perfect example of a poem that uses anapest all throughout. Let's look at the first stanza:

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house

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